HOW TO WRITE SCIENCE FICTION: Lesson 2: “Don’t tell anyone about it!”

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Last year, Kit suggested we run a series of tips on how to write Science Fiction. That seemed like a pretty good idea, so this will be a continuing series. I’ll pass along my pointers and observations in no particular order, as they occur to me, for whatever little my thoughts are worth.

Some caveats: I’m not a teacher. I’m not a professional writer. I’ve never sold a story, I’ve never made a dime. I’ve been writing, on and off, for a quarter century, but aside from some sporadic moments of inspiration here and there, I really don’t think I was any good at it until the second half of 2006 when I was writing my novel “Home Again,” and suddenly things just sort of clicked and I could do it. I’m not sure that I have anything of any merit to teach you, and I’m not sure I *could* teach even if I had something worth telling you. I am, however, arrogant enough to try.

Feel free to ask questions or make comments below. If something requires expansion or explanation, or just rambling wise-ass comments, I’ll be happy to do it.

LESSON # 2: Don’t tell anyone about it

Last time out, I talked about how I’d get some neato-keeno super-shiny new idea, and immediately blab the whole thing to my friends, who would then show their fealty to my brilliance, and express confusion over my lack of success with the opposite sex, right up until their parents or girlfriends would scream at them to get off the stupid phone and go back to sleep. I said that the problem was my not knowing the difference between “Stories” and “Ideas” in those days. That’s true, but it was actually only part of the problem.

The other half was that I talked too damn much.

I immediately spilled the story on everyone I knew to praise and accolades. If you can get the love of your peers just by talking, why bother to put in the hard work of writing? And if you get a rush out of that, then you’d be a fool not to move on to the next cycle of idea/praise/rush, the next hit. The next thing you know, you’re addicted to coming up with clever little ideas, but you never do anything with ‘em.

It’s understandable, of course. It’s human nature: everyone wants to be thought of as smart, and cleverness is frequently mistaken for intelligence. I’ve been down that road myself. A lot. It’s fast, it’s easy, it feels great, and it quickly frees you up to get on to other, more important things, like watching Space: 1999 reruns, or wondering how low Megan Fox’s career will get before she does a nude scene to salvage it. I totally get the appeal, really I do. It is, however, an empty pursuit as such things go. I’ll be blunt (and rude!): the difference between being a *real* writer and a guy who just throws out random ideas is pretty much the difference between having a girlfriend, and simply having a right hand.

It’s not all bad, though: firstly, it’s curable. All you need is a pencil and paper, and to learn to shut your mouth. And while the disadvantages of randomly firing ideas into the air generally outweigh the advantages, there is at least one good thing that comes from tossing off…uhm….ideas: since you’re cruising for the buzz only, you get pretty good at coming up with ideas pretty quickly, probably much faster than those prim snobs in Lit class who spend years belaboring a plot, and end up with a trunkful of thousand-page manuscripts no one will ever read about love in the time of measles, or whatever. The disadvantages of such intellectual self-abuse are pretty obvious, but on the bright side you *do* end up pretty quick on the draw.

Should you do it? No. Does everyone do it? Well, obviously all aspiring SF writers go through a phase like that, but you do it too much and you go blind to your own talent. Your social skills atrophy. You lack anything to show from it, rewards subtle and grand that arise from being a wordsmith. Once you get past college (Grad School at the very latest), women can spot a poser a mile away: they recognize that your right arm looks like that of a fiddler crab - metaphorically speaking. The gravy train ends.
Ray Bradbury rather famously agrees. In one of his stories, one character chides another for just this. He says that you throw your ideas out there, rob them of all energy and context, and talk them to death before they’re even born. They never germinate into actual stories. He, himself, admits to yammering a mile a minute about every random plot or inspiration that came to him, but during that period he never actually wrote anything.

Which is kind of a waste, because you *may* actually be a great writer, you honest-to-gosh might be great, but you never developed your talent. All you really need to do to find out is write, rather than talk.

So shut your mouth and start typing!